Leslie Berlin

Tech Troublemakers

Air Date: June 9, 2018

Leslie Berlin of Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford discusses her new book “Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age”


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, troublemakers, these days that’s an apt description of a Silicon Valley cohort. Especially identifying the harm or trouble the newest generation of technological innovators has inflicted. Whose seeming disregard for their social or anti-social influence has degraded democracy and human relations. So the more innocuous notion of trouble versus harm may actually better reflect its precursor, so suggests my guest’s book today, “Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age.” The author is Leslie Berlin, project historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University. Prototype columnist for the New York Times, Berlin is a fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences. As the Times reviewed, ‘“Troublemakers” opens with a more uplifting vision of the tech age. With the advertising copy from the iconic 1997 Apple commercial that captures the valley’s conception of itself. ‘Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do.’” Berlin profiles the first woman to take a technology company public, the first chairman of Apple, and early web innovators who revolutionized and commercialized the internet through pioneering personal computing. Congratulations Leslie, belated congratulations on this book.

BERLIN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: How do the current troublemakers, or agitators compare to the ones that you profile in the book. What is the difference in the trouble of the Jobs era and the trouble of the Zuckerberg era.

BERLIN: Yeah, interesting question, so there’s a lot in common. The sense of, the importance of having an impact and making a change, and the real belief which certainly at the time that I write about in the book, in the 70s and 80s, which was true, which was that the existing way things were done was not going to work. And part of what you had to innovate was a whole new way of doing business in some ways. Those are some of the things they have in common. I think where we’re seeing the really biggest difference is on the scale and scope that things happen in Silicon Valley now. I mean at the time that I’m writing about in the book, Silicon Valley is just moving away from being gearhead engineers selling to other gearhead engineers, and it’s taking its first steps into the kind of impact that we’re familiar with today. So these are the early personal computers, the first video games, the beginning of the biotech industry. And so what you’re watching is sort of this bursting through the soil of all of these new ideas and they’re flowering. But their impact is still a little muted. It’s as if the stage is being set. But what we see now is the enormous impact that Silicon Valley has on all of our lives. And I think because the scale has changed so much, people are thinking, wait a second, what exactly does all of this mean. I mean if you think about how panicked you feel when you can’t find your cell phone, right? And it’s because that is essentially not just your brain, but in some ways sort of your heart in your hand, right? I mean this is who you know, who you love, what you do, where you’re going, what you have to say, what you care about. And people very reasonably have come to say, well I need to understand more what’s going on there. And I think that what you’re really seeing in some sense, is the maturing of our own understanding as a society of what it means to live in this technological age in the way it’s constructed right now with these giant tech companies. Because up until very very very recently, i.e. I would say the last three years, there was just a sense of sort of awe and wonder at the magic of these devices. I mean they’re beautiful, they’re elegant they’re just such wonderful things. I mean you can talk to people all around the world, you can do it for free, I mean these things, and now people are saying, wait how does that magic actually work? And what exactly am I doing to make it happen and how do I feel about that? And so that’s the way that even if the behavior is somewhat similar, when the impact is so much bigger it has different ramifications.

HEFFNER: I love that you use the word magic, because we had Virginia Heffernan here who wrote a book called “Magic and Loss” and those were the metaphors she used to describe the present era and what the technology embodies and what it also can delete from our collective humanity. And when you talk about trouble, you know it’s one thing to confound the stereotype to imagine the next paradigm and it’s another thing to wound the social fabric. How much of the trouble then versus now is a function of that degraded moral compass?

BERLIN: I think that to speak of a degraded moral compass in Silicon Valley is to paint with much too broad a brush. And this really gets to something that was important to me, in writing this book. And whenever I think or talk about Silicon Valley. Which is that we seem to think, when we talk about the tech industry, it’s shorthand for, call it five companies. And it’s shorthand for the most famous entrepreneurs. And the biggest impact investors in this sort of thing. And I think that it’s very important to understand that what happens in the Valley, and in the tech industry is you have the most prominent people who you can see, but a lot of the activity is happening underneath that. And, one of the things that became apparent, again and again, not just in my research for this book, but from my previous work as well, is how important the people who are at lower levels in an organization or in a place, are for effecting change. So the stories that I tell often have to do with how they changed the direction of the company, maybe on a technical level or on the level of marketing, this sort of thing. I think that what we’re seeing now also is the kind of impact that people at lower levels or smaller companies can have on the direction and decisions being made in bigger companies. So you see and this again is, it’s not entirely new but it’s really relatively new, the notion of these people coming to the valley, from the valley I should say, who are themselves questioning, you know, what are we doing here. What’s going on. And I think that will and is, will have an impact, and is having an impact. And I think in part that speaks to the openness to ideas and really the lack of hierarchy within these companies and to some extent within Silicon Valley. So I think that we’re going to continue to see and this is the way change happens, you have your pendulum swing too far this way, and people kind of haul it back. And that’s, I think, what we’ve got going on now.

HEFFNER: So maybe there was hyperbole in the degradation comment but this whole notion of the technology is not an arbiter, is not going to serve as an arbiter of truth or morality. Is that the way the people you profiled viewed their creation? Because the explicit exposure from the public’s point of view is that the major operators of the technology have, whether it’s, even Jeff Bezos who owns the Washington Post and his continuing to host the NRAs TV channel on his server. There continues to be a kind of abstaining from moral decision-making. And I’m wondering how that relates to the earlier history.

BERLIN: Yeah, so, the argument that we’re just making the tools.


BERLIN: And the content is not something that we mess around with. Well I mean first of all I think that we’ve seen that there’s been a lot of evidence and discussion that particularly when it comes to the algorithms that make decisions about what comes to the top of your newsfeed and such. There’s no such thing as kind of an objective, we’ll just let the tools do their own work, sort of thing, because of course they’re programmed to do certain things. I think when you look at the past, there was a real idealism underlying these things. So there was an assumption not just in Silicon Valley, but around the country, and I would say, yep, with the exception of a blip in the 1970s where people were very concerned in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate about the implications of technology and advanced sort of sciences for our lives and our planet. Technology and progress in people’s minds have always gone hand in hand. This is just, I mean this is what won in the Cold War, this is what has kept America strong. That was an, basically an unquestioned assumption. And I think that when we’re dealing with the people who I profile, there’s a real belief that increasing access to the technology will defacto create good. So if you look at Bob Taylor, who yes was working for the department of defense when he convinced them to start the ARPANET that eventually morphed into the internet. He didn’t, I mean it is not true that the idea was the network was to help the United States survive a nuclear attack and keep communications intact. That is a myth that is not true for the origins. It quickly became a justification for funding it. But that’s not where the idea came from. The notion was, we want to connect people in diverse communities to each other, because we think that if we can sort of link up their brain power, we’re going to have better results. Same thing in the personal computer industry, there was this notion if you think of the classic 1984 ad for Apple there was this notion that if we can decentralize our information systems it’s going to make the world better for democracy. These were bedrock beliefs of the people who I write about in “Troublemakers” a hundred percent.

HEFFNER: Did they have the foresight to anticipate or did any of them individually, have the foresight to anticipate an error in which YouTube has a conspiracy theory “InfoWars” channel, that it refuses to ban and it’s struck out. One two three strikes. And it continues to profit, probably monetizing some of its content too. I mean did these troublemakers envision an era in which the new technologies and the computing devices were weaponized to promote an actively disseminate bigotry…

BERLIN: No absolutely not. And I think that’s not for a lack of foresight, imagination, or vision on their parts. I think the degree to which all of the technology itself has progressed. I mean to be where we are now required advances, not just in chips and hardware, but in software in the cost of bandwidth and getting all of this. I mean it just it’s at, we’re at the point where the scale itself has created something completely different. And really certainly at the beginning of all this, this was not something that was in people’s minds.

HEFFNER: But what troubles me is the “Troublemakers,” ahistorical or amoral posture. Because to create those chips, I mean which if any of these Troublemakers in your estimation is a model for how someone like Zuckerberg or Sandberg or others should have a historical picture where whatever the next technological innovation was in society it was vulnerable to being hijacked for malicious purposes. I mean it’s not a particularly new or novel idea that that could have happened.

BERLIN: So I guess I have a couple answers to that question. The first is, that I think there’s a notion in Silicon Valley that Steve Jobs talked about when he was speaking at Stanford in 2005. And he described being fired from Apple in 1985. And he talked about how the first thing he did was call David Packard and Bob Noyce. Packard of Hewlett-Packard, Noyce of Intel. And apologized for what he called dropping the baton. And there’s a notion in Silicon Valley ’cause I wanna get back to your question about falling off the melon truck.


BERLIN: There’s a notion in Silicon Valley of this sort of baton pass from generation to generation to generation, and if you talk to Zuckerberg, he’ll tell you that Jobs was a big influence on him and they, so this sort of perennial relay race. Now there are two, there are two problems that go with that, I mean that’s been the secret of Silicon Valley’s success is this incredible sort of handoff and being able to tap into that system. Two problems with it: One is, okay who is left out of the baton pass? You know these incredible networks, who’s not in? Okay? That’s an important question, because who’s in the network determines what happens in the network, right?
And the second question that is legitimate to ask is are they taking the right lessons from the baton pass, right?


BERLIN: And I think that the lessons that have been taken so far have all been on, all, mostly, let me say mostly, on the level of how do you succeed in this business? So if you take, let’s look at Facebook for a second. If you go to Facebook and you go to their sign in at their main campus in Silicon Valley, you’ll see that that sign, people wonder how does the Facebook sign change all the time? Well the answer is there’s a, it’s a huge piece of vinyl that literally is bungee corded over the sign of the company that used to be on that campus. And that was a company called Sun Microsystems that was enormous, I mean talked about buying Apple actually it was that level of huge, and was acquired by Oracle and it’s gone. And when I talked to Facebook they said yes this is here because Mark wants people to see when they leave the campus that anything can happen. That a company that’s top of the world today might not be tomorrow. That’s an important lesson to draw. And so I think that to your second question about who in this book would be a good model. I would point to Mike Markkula. So Mike Markkula owned a third of Apple with Jobs and Wozniak. Mike Markkula is the guy when no one else would give them money, when he was 33 years old, he just retired from Intel at 33, he went to the famous garage, saw what was going on there, and fell in love. Did not want to run a company but ended up getting sucked in by this computer. Well what did Markkula do when he retired from Apple? Actually he hadn’t even retired yet, he started something called the Markkula Center for Ethics at Santa Clara. And he did that because he was worried that, and I don’t think this was necessarily informed by anything specific, but he just generally had a concern that what was coming up was a generation of basically ethical agnostics in every corner of what he was seeing. And he wanted to do something about that. And this, you know at this point the Markkula Center has developed curriculum that’s used all over the world in all different sorts of contexts. So that I think is a great example and model for people to look at.

HEFFNER: You write here that, “it takes a certain kind of audacity to think that you can launch a company, much less invent an industry. And audacity often veers into arrogance. The waves of innovation that have sustained Silicon Valley for the past sixty years have not been an unmitigated good. Waves crash.” And ultimately isn’t it incumbent upon the shareholders of these companies to demand that stewardship so that it’s not a catastrophe, it may not always be an unmitigated good but, we’re kind of veering towards catastrophic waters I’m afraid.

BERLIN: Well I mean this, I mean we are all in the same place watching this happen and asking exactly the same sorts of questions you’re asking. I mean, something’s going to shift and needs to shift and is I think in the process of shifting, I mean I’m watching and learning in exactly the same way you are, I don’t have a special insight on exactly what literally is happening you know on Thursday. But I do think that people are asking these questions and we have to ask them. I mean this, we ultimately should be the ones making these decisions.

HEFFNER: What are you more concerned about, the privacy or the misinformation.

BERLIN: Well honestly what I’m most concerned about…


BERLIN: Broadly speaking, is clamping down on immigration. Which sounds like it’s a completely different topic, but it’s not. At this point two thirds of the people who are working in Silicon Valley companies were born outside of the United States. And whatever direction this ends up going in terms of privacy and fake news and everything else that is so terrifying, we want to be the place where the people who know how to do this stuff, the underlying work that has to exist in order for us to be having these kinds of questions, we need those people to be here. And so for me when I think about what is sort of our, the biggest threat to our democracy on the tech front, it’s that all of these people who know how to make these things happen are not here where they’re subject to our laws and regulations and such, but they’re someplace else who’s welcome, who are welcoming them.


BERLIN: And that’s why I, to me, the prospect of screwing down the immigration nozzle is by far the scariest one we’re facing.

HEFFNER: Giving credit to Zuckerberg and some of his co-founders, immigration is one issue where he took an active stance early on. But to me it’s just so ironic and tragic that despite what might be his forward thinking acknowledgement of your point that immigrants are integral to the American experience and progress, his business was hijacked to exploit an anti-immigrant xenophobic cause. And even when he does interviews, the mea culpa’s don’t really ring authentic in him fully absorbed in that point. That might just be the person he is, in that he can’t really speak viscerally in a way that’s going to resonate with folks.

BERLIN: I think that’s a really important point, and actually something I hadn’t thought about before. Which is, one of the things about Silicon Valley and Silicon Valley companies is for a very very very very long time, there has been a deliberate effort to put a human being out front as the we would now say Avatar, you know, it’s the exemplar of this company. So very early Silicon Valley for example sent its CEOs to testify before congress voluntarily at a time when the other companies were hiring lobbying firms. And you had for example, Steve Jobs right out front as the embodiment of Apple. And what I hadn’t really thought about until you just asked that is that, of course these are all people, right, and so if you decide to put a person as your embodiment of your company, then you are actually in some sense risking your company’s image on exactly what you just talked about, you know, how does this person come across?


BERLIN: You know that’s super interesting.

HEFFNER: And important in terms of Facebook’s failure to, or, and all these companies’ failure to have boards of directors who are really, they’re called trustees because they’re endowed with that trust. And it’s a relationship that they have with the public, as well as they have internally with whatever public traded company we’re talking about, or in the case of a university its board of governors. And so we haven’t seen the development of what many observers wanted which was an editorial board to ensure that the content disseminated on Facebook was, which is vast, was mostly as much as guaranteed, as much as possible, accurate. And we haven’t seen the stewards of the company who are the board members, outspoken, and I know there are many cases of laypeople and investors getting in touch with board members of these companies, who have refused to budge. They have been just as much aligned with the amorality and the ahistorical perspective that we are not going to be actors or activists. We’re just going to heed whatever ignorance or minimal responsiveness the companies have shown so far.

BERLIN: Two quick points on that. One, I think we have to be very very careful with the notion of Facebook being the ultimate arbiter of truth et cetera what gets put onto its website. Second what you’re pointing to, and maybe this would make a good talk with a real expert in this subject, is the structure of the equity, ownership in these companies. Entrepreneurs and Zuckerberg is a great example, own, I believe it’s the majority of shares in these companies as individuals. So that reduces the power of external board advisors.

HEFFNER: Which, and which is why they don’t undertake the kinds of board votes that other companies do to solicit the perspective of the shareholders. But also you point out that the case of Apple was very different in that those early founders, Jobs and company were not the sole proprietors in essence.

BERLIN: Right. Well this is a new development. I mean this is a phenomenon of the massive stakes owned by the founders themselves. And I think actually it’s not something that I know about, but I would love for you to find someone to inform us all about this is, where did that, how did that get going? I mean this is a new development and it has real implications for everything we’re talking about.

HEFFNER: Right, and potential correlation to the blindness and the lack of oversight on the part of Facebook.

BERLIN: Or the lack of control even, if nothing else.

HEFFNER: Right. Leslie, thank you so much for your time today.

BERLIN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.